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Common Sense: Disenthrall and save our country

Two years ago, as Southern California reeled from COVID-19, I began writing this column called “Common Sense.”

I wrote: “We have our jobs cut out for us if we are going to stamp out this pandemic, put our people and our businesses back to work and keep our communities safe in ways that protect the lives and civil rights of all. Not to mention dealing with homelessness, public education, development, automation, taxes and a myriad of other issues that have been temporarily shoved to the back burner but will pose even greater challenges in the years ahead. So every other week, I will strive to explore both these challenges and report on what people in our region are doing about them. There are common-sense answers to our common problems. But we need to actively seek them out.”

That’s been my goal in the 50 or so times I’ve written about pending legislation, proposed programs and new approaches to pressing policy issues. I’ve urged a fresh look at old problems. As Abraham Lincoln told his fellow citizens during another time of wrenching challenges, “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

It’s time for change. We can’t continue to bleed working families leaving for places where housing is more affordable. We can’t continue to spend billions to widen freeways when it only makes traffic worse. We can’t cling to outdated zoning rules that maintain segregated neighborhoods. We can’t rely on a once-a-year count of the homeless when we need timely and accurate data to get people the housing and help they need right now.

That’s why I’m returning to play an active role in public service. Scandals and dysfunction have nearly paralyzed city government in Los Angeles, the center of our region. Kenneth Mejia, running for city controller on a platform of transparency and accountability, won the most votes of any candidate for any office in the history of the city. He asked me to join his administration as the chief deputy controller. Mejia intends to use his accounting and auditing skills to push for housing for all Angelenos, combat climate change, expand public transit, ensure safer streets and make government more transparent, accessible and functional.

It’s an audacious set of goals. Mejia knows no elected official can do this on their own. By educating and empowering, he aims to bring the government to the people — and the people to the government. As I wrote in my first column, progress on the urgent issues confronting us requires us “to wade past the swamp of political rhetoric. Our job is to deal with the reality of where we are. For a democracy to actually make progress, citizens can’t just pick a side and cast a ballot. Being a responsible citizen requires seeking to understand our challenges, listening to each other and finding common ground.”

That’s my parting challenge. If you’re reading this, you’re already one of those seeking to stay informed. But effective governance needs more than your opinions or even your votes. Solving our common problems requires your active participation in your local government. That can take many forms — attending a planning workshop, serving on a city commission, starting a neighborhood organization, marching for a cause, organizing support for a bill or supporting a candidate for office.

Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. As Thoreau wrote: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” We can solve our toughest problems — if we pitch in together to find common-sense solutions.

Rick Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena, former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and former city manager of Azusa, Ventura and Santa Monica.

 

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